The Garden Museum in London (http://www.gardenmuseum.org.uk/) is on a roll. About ten years ago it was generally felt to be a very good idea that had somehow slightly lost its way. Since the arrival of a new Director, Christopher Woodward, in 2006 it has gone from strength to strength and will be undertaking a major redevelopment of the Museum, starting in the autumn of this year. This, for which nearly all of the necessary £6.6 million of funding has already been raised, will double the gallery space, recreate part of John Tradescant’s famous Cabinet of Curiosities (his “Ark”) and establish the UK’s first archive of garden design. The Museum is becoming an important as well as an interesting place to visit.
To comprehend this new status, gardeners everywhere should visit the Russell Page exhibition which opened on the 25th March and for which there was a very splendid opening party last Tuesday evening. Russell Page was probably the most important garden designer of the 20th century, but has almost disappeared from our collective gardening memory as he was, in his own words “the most famous garden designer no one has ever heard of”. Long before I took gardening in general seriously I bought, in 1976, a second hand copy of his “The Education of a Gardener” at a church jumble sale. I read it in one fascinated session, and immediately realised that this was someone special.
His present lack of recognition in the UK (in Italy however they treat him with proper respect) is a completely undeserved state of affairs, for no-one else in the last century so well understood the big things in gardening: movement and stillness, mass and void, light and dark, and the achievement of harmony. He was trained as an artist at the Slade, and subsequently sufficiently impressed Kokoschka to be asked to share a studio with him. These skills were put to good use when he would make an initial drawing relating the house, potential garden layout and the wider landscape, tying them together in a completely harmonious, but seemingly unstudied fashion. Despite this apparent facility it often took him two years or more, as at Villa Silvio Pellico outside Turin (www. villasilviopellico.it) to move from initial concept to detailed final plans.
In this he was helped by having a very rich, very discerning and probably very patient client base, who were prepared to put him up in their houses, or on their yachts, for as long as it took to get to the desired end result. Some of these clients are still very much alive and remember him fondly. Very tall and with an apparently imposing presence, he seems to have created an atmosphere of awe (even if not shock) around himself and probably wasn’t entirely easy. But then geniuses aren’t and it is fair to say he was a genius. His favourite method of intercontinental travel was Concorde, and in a deft touch, the Museum’s curators and caterers served us up vodka martinis and trays of canapés that recalled those amazingly luxurious flights.
He worked all over the world, including in the UK (at Badminton, Longleat and Leeds Castle amongst others), France, Italy (not only the famous gardens around Turin and Lady Walton’s La Mortella at Ischia but also La Landriana near Anzio) and in the USA. His garden at the Frick Museum in New York is threatened by overbuilding from a proposed extension. If you feel, like I do, this is not a good idea you can visit unitetosavethefrick.org to register your protest there .
The exhibition is very important in itself, and has a good range of photographs, reminiscences, and Page’s drawings and plans. What makes it even more important though is that, through the generosity of the de Belder family of Belgium, Page’s entire archive has been donated to the Museum. Page had originally wanted, as he faced his own mortality, to donate this to the V and A. Incredibly, they were not interested in 1985 when he died and the de Belders have since preserved it lovingly. Robert and Jelena de Belder were some of his best and most intimate clients, planting Kalmthout Arboretum and employing Page over a long period. Their son, Daniel, was responsible for the donation and I was lucky enough to spend a few minutes with him at the end of the party (the entire happy occasion was much marked by the kindness of strangers). He remarked that it was only recently that gardening had been returned to its position amongst the fine arts: at least in France it had been treated as a form of trade or horticulture since the Revolution. Page’s archive should play a major role in enabling us to understand the process whereby he achieved the harmony and perfection to which he aspired, and in conjunction with the other important deposits at the Garden Museum, to giving the institution a pre-eminent role in garden history.
This is an exhibition anyone interested in garden history really must see, and in doing so they will understand how the role of the Museum is growing and how important the archive, as well as Page’s memory, will become. It’s on until June 21st and you really must go.